Mesa students benefit from Whiteman's passion for helping kids - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Mesa students benefit from Whiteman's passion for helping kids

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

Posted: Monday, May 16, 2011 1:00 pm | Updated: 5:38 pm, Mon May 16, 2011.

The children came in waves.

Sometimes just one or two. Sometimes many more.

These children, mostly Hispanic, came to have their picture taken with a white guy, many decades their senior.

He was much too trim and well-groomed to be Santa. And it is doubtful that Santa ever loved them more or gave them gifts equal to those from this man and his wife.

The man is John O. Whiteman, and he, along with Dolores Whiteman, were the honorees at a BEEPs reunion at Holmes Elementary School in Mesa.

BEEPs stands for Building Educational Excellence Pre-School. And the event was a reunion because the pre-school program's first class is now (drum roll, please) in the fourth grade.

There's a lot wrong with the world.

But, if you were at Holmes Elementary last Friday morning, you know there is a lot that is right, too. I was at the program by happenstance and in a way so was Whiteman.

I'll explain, but first some background.

Whiteman's father, Jack Whiteman, started Empire Southwest. Located in Mesa east of Country Club Drive and just south of the Superstition Freeway, Empire Southwest is where you go if you need heavy equipment.

Particularly in the real estate boom years, there was a heavy demand for heavy equipment and Empire Southwest prospered and that meant the philanthropic Whiteman Foundation prospered.

In 2000 - less than three years before John Whiteman retired as the company's CEO - he and Dolores attended a Mesa United Way Dinner.

He opened the program and saw that the keynote address topic was early childhood brain development.

"Let's get out of here," he said he whispered to his wife. "We'll tell the people at our table, we're going to the restroom and just not come back."

Balking, she whispered a challenge, "What would we do at home?"

"I don't know, watch World Wide Wrestling," he replied.

She was not tempted. They stayed. Good thing, too. The speaker ignited a passion in Whiteman for helping children.

His passion hasn't ebbed as he marched me through a short course in early childhood brain development over Starbucks coffee Friday morning.

Early childhood brain development isn't about learning the ABCs or multiplication tables before the other kids on the block.

Rather it's about teaching the young brain how to get along with others, how to work in teams and communicate with and feel empathy toward others. It's learning how to learn.

"We try to address dysfunctional behavior on the wrong end," Whiteman said, noting the amount of money the state spends on prisons while funding for schools is dropping. "Fixing the front end is more effective."

Learning "gates (in the brain) open at six months, nine months and 18 months," he continued. "Once they close, it takes a lot of money to open them up again."

That United Way speech was so profound that the Whiteman foundation made a 90 degree turn as a profile on a website of another of his projects called EducareArizona shows:

"In the 1970s to the 1990s, the foundation invested primarily in the arts and higher education. But at the turn of the century, the foundation's emphasis shifted to creating awareness of the issues surrounding early childhood development and contributing to child welfare."

Though pre-school learning was a big part of our conversation, the purpose of my meeting was to learn more about a student philanthropy program that Whiteman and the Mesa United Way had launched at Holmes Elementary.

Here's how the program works: The Whiteman Foundation put up $11,500, enough that each of 150 participating fifth- and sixth-grade students would have $100 to give to a good cause.

To help them learn more about local needs, the United Food Bank, the Child Crisis Center and A New Leaf sent representatives to brief the students on what each organization did and to answer such questions as what percentage of each gift went to administration and how much went directly to those being served.

If you think about the neighborhood that Holmes Elementary draws from, the whole project is bound to raise an eyebrow. For most of these students, $100 is money they could put to good use for themselves.

Yet this is not so much about the money, as it is about using the money to teach skills. Whiteman explained the students had to develop critical thinking skills in choosing how to distribute their $100 philanthropic gift. They had the responsibility of making choices. They had to use math skills in figuring out what percentage of their money would go to administration. They learned more about the community they live in. And they learned about people whose needs are greater than their own and the organizations that are there to help.

Whiteman hopes the project will encourage other philanthropists to adopt a classroom.

Whiteman's Philanthropy in Education program at Holmes is not connected to the BEEPs program except in this way.

Somewhere in Whiteman's journey from running a heavy equipment business to tackling early education, the Whitemans decided to make Holmes one of the schools they would mentor.

They have put their money where their hearts are and are funding Holmes' pre-school program. At our coffee, all Whiteman knew is that the Holmes BEEPs - the school's mascot is a roadrunner - were having a reunion and Holmes Principal Darlene Johnson had asked him to be there.

I asked to tag along to get a good quote on the philanthropy program. What I got was a better quote.

"Mr. Whiteman has always given from his heart to our school because he loves children," Johnson told the BEEPs and their parents.

And I watched as Whiteman knotted up inside.

Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

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